The greatest piece of engineering man has ever achieved is the humble bicycle. A controversial statement, perhaps. But bear with me…
There are many things that could be given the label of “the greatest piece of engineering”, and we could debate them forever. I’m sticking to my statement. But why?
Because, in over 100 years since The Safety Bicycle came about, the ‘double diamond’ frame design has basically gone unchanged. The fundamental design cannot be improved on.
That, to me, is quite some achievement. And the beauty of it is not complexity. It is simplicity.
How does this relate to technology? I’ve mentioned before that my favourite quote is from Einstein, “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler”. I am also a fan of Dieter Rams’ 10 principles of good design.
Rams’ last point echoes the Einstein quote - “Good design is as little design as possible”. “Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity”.
It is possible to build quality IT infrastructures these days without resorting to complex and bloated products that promise ‘an easy life’. Supporting a complex environment is considerably harder, it takes longer for new hires to learn, and time taken to resolve problems is drastically extended. These translate to higher costs to a business, and a very real reduction in the ability to meet customer expectations. What might have seemed a quick shortcut to take initially has led you into a dense and overgrown forest.
The phrase du jour, DevOps, has had much interpretation. To me, it is a label applied to what any business with quality engineering would have been doing for years anyway. Plus, it is more about culture than technology. Giving developers a smooth route to production needn’t be a minefield of complexity, wrapped in layers and layers of ’trendy’ software products that are doing a simple job.
Returning to the bicycle, here’s The Hovenring in the Netherlands:
The challenge was to keep traffic, of all sorts, moving in a smooth and safe way. They could have introduced phased traffic lights, or burrowed under the ground; but both of these solutions have obvious negatives. There is smart engineering at work here - something as simple as it needs to be.
The DevOps integration of developers and operations isn’t just about technology, it is about communication. It is about people. It should be a consultative workflow, where the right skills are used to design the solution. It isn’t about taking yet another product and throwing it into the infrastructure soup, it’s about discussing business goals and using both sets of skills to achieve them.
Regardless of the label, progressing a business’s technology can be achieved through smart, simple, engineering without being overwrought.
I’ll finish off with a link to a short video. The Vitsoe shelving system, designed by Rams in 1959 and still fundamentally the same today, epitomises my thoughts on IT infrastructure design. The first 40 seconds or so are golden words:
Vitsoe ‘A persistent system’
 The Rover Safety Bicycle, around 1885